Monthly Archives: December 2013

Why did Sweden succumb to neoliberalism?

Noam kindly answered my mail, asking if I could provide him with references to written material, preferably in English, about the dire developments in Sweden the past years. (The only authors I could think of are themselves neoliberal believers who don’t even see the problems.) If any reader of these lines have information of that sort, please post a message!

A few words to Noam in reply:

Although I’m following media and the debate as close as I can, it’s my impression that there is no substantial scholarly work on controversial issues in the social and political fields in this country. Here we are lagging miles behind the US, as I conclude from your lectures. We are a compromising consensus people always trying to avoid controversies in well-washed circles. Thus I have no references to any reliable work on the current and serious problems in Sweden. The debate goes on in the ordinary media, thus mainly in Swedish.

One episode two years ago illustrates this provincial condition quite well. A research institute called SNS published a study in which they concluded the absence of proof that privatization of welfare services had made them better or less costly. The main reason was simply that no substantial research to evaluate the privatizations had been performed by anyone. This seemingly uncontroversial conclusion nevertheless caused uproar in business circles, and thus also in media. The CEO of SNS got cold feet and muzzled the main author of the report, which was a little too much even for right wing papers, and the reverse pressure eventually forced the CEO to resign.

SNS’ history is interesting in itself. It was created as a joint venture between labor and capital shortly after the last war, when business leaders still were somewhat defensive after the Russian (and labor) victory. Serious discussions in Sweden even opened for the possibility of a command economy. As one way of approaching the unions some more progressive business leaders suggested the creation of SNS, through which the two parties could share findings reached by impartial research. (But who’s the real boss was revealed by the scandal.)

One other important obstacle to productive scholarship in these areas is the dominant postmodern deconstruction of reason the last decades, from which the formerly rational Sweden hasn’t been spared. An illustrative example highlighted the issue some years ago. The government was about to appoint a new principal of a medium-sized university and presented a postmodernist professor, Moira von Wright, for the job. A number of science professors reacted publicly in protest, calling von Wright “an enemy of science”, based on statements of hers such as: “Gender-aware and gender sensitive physics requires a relational approach to physics and that a lot of the traditional scientific knowledge content of physics be removed”. She was of course appointed and remains at the job.

Sweden is a small country, still showing a lot of characteristics from the backward farmers’ society which is just a couple of generations away. In moments of self-awareness we call our country a duck-pond, referring to the restricted and sometimes claustrophobic debate environment we have to endure.

That’s why it is so liberating to listen to you on the Internet. It may be that information is filtered in the US, but it’s there anyway, and you bring it to us. Here everything is stirred down in media porridge and no one bothers. It’s in fact no great wonder that a neoliberal (and postmodern) breakdown of the magnitude we have experienced the past decade can take place without much ado.

Noam Chomsky has lived for 85 years to become our greatest inspiration

Today is Noam Chomsky’s 85th birthday. The most important intellectual leader on earth has reached a mature age and is still an active forerunner in the struggle for an equitable, humane and reasonable world in which he wants the well-being of humankind to be in the center of our efforts. I sent him my warmest congratulations, adding a few notes on the current situation in Sweden, an excerpt of which follows:

On this day one year ago I wrote you a few words about the deconstruction of the concept “Sweden” as it usually has been known by many people. I’m afraid that the decline has continued since then, even manifesting itself in further disastrous developments.

But today we of course remember Nelson Mandela. For us his memory is tied to an era when “Sweden” was a different society. This was then my country to which Mandela made his first foreign visit, just one month after his release from Robben Island. That country had given more financial support to ANC than all the large European countries together. It was furthermore a policy supported by a substantial majority of Swedes and agitated by numerous solidarity movements. But a key decision maker was naturally Olof Palme.

Only one political party here opposed the support of ANC, thus in fact backing apartheid, namely the Right Party, at that time a rather insignificant party on the remote flank of the bourgeoisie. Today that party – now (naturally) calling itself “The Moderates” – dominates the government and provides our Prime Minister. One renowned left wing commentator recommends their ministers to stay away from the Mandela funeral because “their party’s breath stinks from dead viper” when it comes to ANC and Mandela.

To pick another shock that hit us the other day: the 2012 PISA report. Swedish scores in math, science and reading are falling like stones, in a speed not matched by any other OECD country. It’s now widely held that the reason can be directly derived from the neoliberal excesses, starting with free choice of schools in the 1990s, accelerated by anarchistic privatizations and erupting in robber capitalism with dismantling of resources in private schools resulting in huge profits transferred to tax havens.

The dire consequence of this experiment is that schools in Sweden have become extremely segregated, this in turn being the basic explanation behind the disastrous performance. We who grew up in the old Sweden (I’m 72) can hardly believe our eyes. Our country once had the most homogeneous schools in the world, a property now considered by many experts to be the foundation for good performance. It’s not just that the least talented kids are hit by the segregation; the performance by the top students is also declining!

All the neoliberal reforms are enforced on pure ideological grounds, based on the religious belief that market principles are infallible. Thus regulatory bodies usually haven’t been set up, let alone effective regulations carried through. Politicians seem to have shown the most naïve confidence in their religion, but perhaps they just don’t care (“if we privatize as much as we can manage we’ll leave the problems to the next government, since we know that people won’t put up with us for much longer anyway”).

If I were to say a few words on another neoliberal experiment and some democratic paradoxes I could choose an exotic welfare measure for the rich called RUT. In short it means that the government (tax payers) picks up half the bill when people buy domestic services of different kinds (including homework assistance for their kids, and hiring of butlers).

As one would expect it’s only ten percent of households that are entitled to this welfare check, since the rest cannot afford the services in the first place. In a democratic society it would seem self evident that the 90 percent of voters abolish an absurdity like this. But no way! The Social Democrats don’t dare to touch the “reform” which was pitched as a means of “gender equality” and a way to reduce black work. (The last argument is just too wonderful: rich criminals should be bribed to stay legal!)

Although Sweden isn’t business run to the extent the US is, “democracy” seems to work in the same way. The RUT absurdity is not in any way the only example where a large majority has no say. One way it’s made to work is through media. It’s said that we are obedient here, don’t want to stand out, feel safe with social conformity etcetera. But if that’s an explanation, the same seems to be the case in all (so called) democracies.

In polls 10 percent say that they are fully content with the present form of profit-making in schools and welfare businesses. The rest want some kind of restrictions, from banning dividends to prohibiting profits altogether. The only party whose program deals in at least some way with the wishes of 90 percent of voters is the Left Party, which nevertheless is supported by only about 7 percent in polls. It would have been a paradox if you hadn’t taught us that democracy in our sense is just a marketing procedure.

Well, crisis and opportunity are synonyms, as the old Chinese teach us. And there are more and more signs of a change in politics here. The impediments should just inspire to do more work (I try to contribute verbally in a blog). And in this work, dear Noam, you are the most inspiring person on earth. You demonstrate that rationality is the fundamental way to progress. And as you often point out there is constant progress going on, with one or other setback here and there, of course. So if my report seems depressing, I myself am filled with optimism regarding the development in the longer run. And this optimism is something I gain from listening to your talks regularly.

Nelson Mandela was a hero and a model for humanity. In my world you are even more so!